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It’s always intriguing to see how teams handle this time of year, overcoming the pressures and distractions of the holiday with the normal routine of travel and games. With the new year on deck at the end of the week, it’s worth taking a look at the teams that have the toughest stretches to deal with in an attempt to project who to fade as the grind intensifies.
We've separated our top candidates into groups, Three-pointer style.
The Favored Fade
The Clippers entered the week in a foul mood regardless of how many presents they found stacked under their tree. Their dominance over the Lakers, an 11-game run that dated back to Oct. 2013, ended Christmas night without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to aid the cause.
Paul, nursing a hamstring injury, then missed another game on Monday as L.A. fell to Denver at home. DeAndre Jordan was then involved in a car accident on Tuesday, although he wsn't injured. Griffin isn’t due back until the latter part of January. Key guard J.J. Redick is also dealing with a hamstring issue that has kept him out of action all week.
They left town after Monday’s date with the Nuggets for a three-game road trip that started on a sour note Wednesday in New Orleans and features a Friday-Saturday back-to-back at Houston and Oklahoma City. Paul returned, looking like his typical self with 21 points and eight boards and seven assists, but is on a temporary minutes restriction that limited him to just 30:36 on the floor.
It wasn't enough, so the Pelicans overcame a 25-rebound night from Jordan and 22 points ffrom Austin Rivers in a 102-98 win. For the first time since flaming out of the postseason after going up 2-0 in the first round on Portland, L.A. has dropped four straight games. All the losses have come to sub-.500 teams. It's the Clippers' longest regular-season losing streak since Feb. 2015 and matches the worst run under Doc Rivers. The Clips haven't lost five straight since 2011. That team lost 50 games.
"All in all, I think we're going to be okay," Paul said following the loss in New Orleans. "At the end of the day, we want to be healthy at the right time."
Redick could be back for the weekend's games and Paul's restriction sounds like it will last a few more nights, so there may be more trouble ahead. Odds are good that the Clippers might spend the first moments of 2017 on a charter looking to get out of Oklahoma unless the team decides to spend the night. Even if they were completely healthy, this would be a long week. If the losing continues, it could be downright dreadful.
The Test Cases
Toronto and Milwaukee are actually spending the entire week on the road, so it will be interesting to see whether not being home at all will help maintain a sense of normalcy this week since routines will remain the same for most. Both are exceptional test cases, but not identical. Neither had to play on Christmas Day, but while the Raptors celebrated the holiday in Portland, where they arrived to play the Blazers after opening a season-long six game road trip with a win in Utah. Meanwhile, the Bucks really got to cut loose after smoking the Wizards 123-96 on Friday and opened their week against Washington on Monday with a 107-102 loss to start a four-game swing.
Toronto entered Wednesday's loss to Golden State as arguably the league’s hottest team, sporting a 13-2 record over the last 15 games that no one else could match. The Warriors ran out to a 42-17 lead and then held off the Raps, handing them their first double-digit loss of the season. Still, forcing 20 turnovers suggests the visitors can play with anyone and have crashed the league's elite. The Raptors have covered the number in 12 of their last 13 wins to build up a resume that currently has them as the NBA’s most profitable bet this season.
The Raptors have been held below 100 points only once since Nov. 6, a span of 24 contests, so the over has been a great wager, prevailing 17 times and making a Raps/over parlay a very popular play. One thing to keep an eye on with them this week revolves around their 0-3 mark in Pacific Division road games since their next stops are at Phoenix on Thursday and back at Staples to play the Lakers on Jan. 1. The Clippers beat Toronto there 123-115 on Nov. 21. Toronto's season-low six-game road trip ends on Jan. 3 in San Antonio, providing them another opportunity for a statement win if they're not to weary to pull it off.
Milwaukee's loss to the Wizards started a trip that also features stops at Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago on a sour note. That’s not a taxing trip, even though the games against the Timberwolves and Bulls are a back-to-back. Spending New Year’s eve so close to home is also a luxury, so if they continue their mastery of the Bulls on Saturday, this could be a very happy group despite having to spend the entire week on the road. Milwaukee swept a home-and-home against Chicago in the middle of this month by a combined margin of 37 points and seems to have a significant edge on its Central Division rival due to its edge in length and athleticism.
Giannis Antetokounmpo put up eye-popping numbers against the Bulls in the dominant wins and has averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists over his last five games after torching the Wizards for a career-high 39 points last Friday night. Since Dec. 10, he's averaged 27.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and six assists per game, numbers that will travel despite the fact the Bucks have been lousy 5-8 on the road. A 15-2 run helped the Wizards erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit on Monday, so the Bucks were predictably angry when they took the floor and trashed the Pistons 119-94 in Auburn HIlls on Wednesday. We'll see if they can maintain that intensity over their final two stops.
Four other teams that have been identified as potentially toxic come week’s end include the Pistons, Pacers, Knicks and Suns, teams that all could take losing streaks into the new year.
Detroit looked burnt out most of last week before a spirited performance in a home loss to Golden State, so they’re on this list despite snapping a five-game losing streak with a rout of LeBron James-less Cleveland on Monday before reverting back to their brutal form in the 25-point loss to the Bucks. After criticizing everyone's effort last week, Stan Van Gundy pointed to himself after the latest rout.
"This is entirely on me," Van Gundy said Wednesday. "We have had too many games where we're getting buried. I'm embarrassed right now, and I have a lot of thinking to do to find a way to get this fixed. This is brutal."
The Pistons will spend New Year’s Eve in Miami before playing the Heat on Jan. 1 after a Friday night game in Atlanta, so fading them that day would be a must even if they were playing well. With Jon Leuer starting instead of Tobias Harris, Van Gundy is tinkering and takes a cranky team on this two-game road trip. At least the locales will be fun. Maybe too fun.
Indiana has matched the Clips with an NBA-long four-game losing streak after falling in Washington in a game where they were outrebounded 54-34 and head coach Nate McMillan felt they were pushed around. Unlike the rest of these teams, the Pacers will be home this weekend, hoping to get right against the Bulls and Magic.
The Knicks fell short in Atlanta in a contentious game that went overtime despite Carmelo Anthony being ejected for punching Thabo Sefolosha in the second quarter. After losing at Madison Square Garden to the Celtics on Sunday due to an inability to get stops, the Knicks couldn't get a basket when they needed it and missed key free throws in losing to a Hawks team that had lost six of seven at home. New York is 5-10 on the road, heading to New Orleans and Houston for a weekend back-to-back that ensures they'll spend New Year's eve flying back home.
Lastly, the Suns certainly looked to fall off in a 119-98 loss in San Antonio, getting outscored 61-34 in the second half. After hosting Toronto on Thursday, they'll be at Utah on Dec. 31, which puts them in prime position to finish 2016 with the Western Conference's worst record.
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